The Buttes Chaumont is a bit like the French version of Prospect Park. Both are popular with recreationists precisely because of their wildness. However, some heavy karma surrounds the Parisian park. Whether it is good or bad is rather a matter of interpretation in Sébastien Betbeder’s Nights with Theodore (trailer here), which screens as a selection of Film Comment Selects 2013.
Buttes Chaumont is such an integral part of Nights, it gets its own documentary preamble. Not exactly hallowed ground, it was once the site of the Royal gallows and a slaughter yard for horses. Napoleon III grandly reclaimed the land for public consumption when he commissioned the park in 1860. Yet, it has always been the subjects of rumors regarding secret subterranean rooms and mystical rituals.
When Theodore meets Anna at a party, he impulsively sneaks into the park with her. They spend the night together and exchange numbers in the morning. The next evening he convinces her to return. Soon this becomes their regular nocturnal routine. We learn the park often exerts a strange influence on people. Clearly, its effect on Theodore is stronger than on Anna, who eventually starts to wonder if their unusual courtship is sustainable.
Betbeder creates an evocative late night atmosphere that hints at the mysterious without ever committing to the supernatural. The history he presents of the Buttes Chaumont is also truly fascinating. Frankly, it would be cool to see it as the setting of a straight-up genre picture, featuring New Age cultists chasing maidens through the underground passages.
That is hardly what Betbeder set out to do. Rather, Nights often feels like the Facebook generation reboot of Bresson’s Four Nights of a Dreamer, which is an ambitious vibe to go for. At times Nights with Theodore definitely veers into the hipsterish (especially the soundtrack), but the extent to which fate is a palpable presence is quite memorable.
While Theodore initially comes across as too old and too scruffy for the collegiate looking Anna, Pio Marmaï and Agathe Bonitzer are fairly convincing selling their initial attraction and their developing whatever it is. They are both decidedly reserved screen presences, but that sort of works in this context.